According to the Australasian Paper Industry Association, it’s better for the environment to print your emails rather than checking them repeatedly.

In an article published on Monday in the Australian Financial Review, Bernard Cassell, president of APIA, spoke to The Australian Financial Review about “unfair claims that electronic communications are environmentally superior to old-fashioned paper.”

The APIA are fighting back against that small message you see at the bottom of many people’s email signatures these days — “please consider the environment before printing” — and claim that energy used by sending and checking emails actually leaves a larger carbon footprint than the traditional production of paper.

They’ve even gone as far as lodging a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) against large companies such as Westpac, claiming that by cutting their use of paper to “help the environment” (eg offering opt out options for customers when it comes to paper invoices), these companies are making “false and misleading statements… about the sustainability of paper communications.”

As Cassell told Crikey, paper is “basically of itself, by the time it’s made, is carbon positive”. The majority of paper is made from plantation wood, he says, and the trees planted by the paper industry actually absorb significant amounts of Carbon Dioxide.

Quoting Britain’s 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, Cassell says that “globally, industrial forestry including planting of new forests is estimated to result in the absorption annually of 1 billion tons of C02″.

But Dr. Judith Ajani, an environmental economist at the Australian National University, thinks loose regulation of emissions reporting in Australia has created a loophole which allows for misleading figures to be published.

“Under the Kyoto Protocol rules Australia uses, Australia does not report emissions from logging forests so long as these areas remain forested,” Dr. Ajani said. This means that emissions from plantations are not taken into account, despite the fact that it takes decades for these plantations to recapture their original amount of C02.

“Even the plantations are not carbon neutral if you take into account the recapture time,” she said.

One of Cassell’s other main aims is to challenge the widely held belief that paper production is harmful to forestation. “It’s one of the greatest myths in the world that the paper industry destroys forests,” he told Crikey.

“The paper industry is responsible for growing the product.”

According to Tim Woods, who assists with coordinating the paper industry’s current information campaign, the manufacture of paper “starts with a renewable and re-growable source”.

“What you actually have is a net lower impact in terms of emissions than from forms of electronic media,” he said.

Tim Grant, Director of Life Cycle Strategies, is surprised at the suggestions and thinks placing emphasis solely on carbon emissions ignores the paper industry’s impact on the environment in other significant ways.

“To just focus on greenhouse gas impacts leaves out very important impacts on land use, water use and other very important pollution impacts,” Grant told Crikey. “I find the claim pretty extraordinary and I’d like to see the basis behind it.”

Associate Professor Lachlan Andrew of Swinburne University’s Centre for Advanced Internet Architectures also disagrees with the APIA’s position that the energy used by the internet, and in particular email, outweighs the environmental impact of paper production.

Prof. Andrew believes that using the Internet as a “substitute instead of a supplement” will provide the best result for the environment. “We need the internet to help us to physically travel less and print less.”

On Andrew’s calculations, about 1 joule of energy is required to store an email for a year — about 0.1% of the energy required to boil a cup of water. He says the energy required to send an email is “very small,” to the point that it was not worth calculating.